Facts (and their alternates) have been in the news a lot over the last few weeks. POTUS and his team have been playing fast and loose with the concept of truth and mayhem has ensued. In most cases, it has been simple to pinpoint the alternative facts since they try to describe something that has just happened and there is recorded evidence to refute them.

But in the longer term, is there such a thing as a fact? In fact [sic] everything we know has an expiration date. Sam Arbesman’s book, the Half Life of Facts (watch his TED talk for a quick intro) is a fascinating study into how everything we know is replaced by new knowledge over a long enough time. Unfortunately, we don’t know how long an individual fact will last, but we can work out the half-life of facts and these vary by area of knowledge. So for example, it has been calculated that the half-life of facts in medicine is 45 years – in other words, half of all medical knowledge from 1972 is now incorrect.  The half-life of mathematics is much longer because, unless someone finds an error in a proof, it will stand. But according to scientometricians (the name given to the people who work out these half-lives!) the half-life of facts in the social sciences is much shorter….

“…the social sciences have a much faster rate of decay than the physical sciences, because in the social sciences there is a lot more “noise” at the experimental level […] if you are making measurements that have to do with people, things are a lot messier, because people respond to a lot of different things, and that means the effect sizes are going to be smaller.”

In other words, people respond to the environment they live in, where their attitudes and behaviours change, which means that the social theories that describe them need to change too.

One example of this can be seen in the refugee crisis and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This ubiquitous social theory describes the pattern of human motivations – in a nutshell the idea is that the needs of each lower level need to be met before the next level becomes an issue. So at the very basic level, human beings need to meet their need for food and shelter and other physiological needs before they start thinking about their safety, then safety and security needs must be met until love becomes relevant, and so on up the pyramid.

But the world has changed since Maslow described this pyramid in 1943 and it appears that new technology has re-ordered the hierarchy. This new order is particularly clear in the case of the refugee crisis. As this refugee says…

“Our phones and power banks are more important for our journey than anything, even more important than food,”

a Syrian named Wael told Agence France Presse on the Greek island of Kos.

Food, clothes and shelter can be bought or found, but a smart phone is irreplaceable as it allows people to remain in contact with their loved ones back home.

Maslow’s hierarchy needs to be re-ordered – the most basic motivator is love and belonging. Now that we have the ability to always keep in touch, love truly does conquer all.